3:10 to Yuma (2007): James Mangold Western Remake

It’s impossible to tell (and irrelevant, too) whether James Mangold’s remake of the classic Western “3:10 to Yuma” was deliberately planned to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the original, also titled “3:10 to Yuma,” one of the best psychological (they were called “adult” at the time) Westerns of the 1950s, driven by taut plot and strong characterization.

Though considered Delmer Daves’ best directorial effort, the 1957 “3:10 to Yuma” doesn’t have the comparable prestige in film history that other Westerns of the era, such as “The Gunfighter” (1950), “High Noon” (1952) and “Rio Bravo” (1959) have, perhaps because its director was not on the same league as Henry King, Fred Zinnemann, and Howard Hawks, respectively. More importantly, the original oater stars Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in the leads, all skillful actors but, again, lacking the pedigree of Gregory Peck, Gary Copper, and John Wayne, in the three aforementioned films.

All that is changed with the arrival of Mangold’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed, commercial hit musical biopic (about the Man in Black Johnny Cash), “Walk the Line,” for which Reese Witherspoon received the Best Actress Oscar. A combination of a well-structured scenario, that follows the source material, Elmore Leonard’s acclaimed short story, Mangold’s taut direction (his craftsmanship continues to improve), and the casting of two of today’s most appealing stars and finest actors, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, immediately positions the “3:10 to Yuma” as an A Western. With some luck and box-office success, the film might revitalize a quintessentially American genre that’s been all but dead in contempo Hollywood. Further evidence of the genre’s viability will be provided with the release of the Brad Pitt Western, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” later this month.

With a sharply detailed script, credited to Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, and Derek Haas, Mangold’s version doesn’t so much reinvent the genre as take the good elements (which were plentiful in the 1957 film) and bring them up-to-date, specifically in terms of characterization, a more cynical mood, and different denouement that will please some while frustrate the more purists.

Crow and Bale, who are playing the roles of Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, respectively, inhabit the same parts of an infamous outlaw and the struggling rancher who volunteers to deliver him to justice. But Mangold’s version lacks the more allegorical dimensions of the original film, which was a biblical parable of good and evil, replete with mythical rains that terminate the terrible drought.

Mangold and his writers offer a gritty depiction of life in the Old West. Bale plays Dan Evans, an honest man who has spent his life abiding by the rules, but with little to show. A former Union Army sharpshooter, Dan came out of the Civil War with a hobbled leg and a small compensation that allowed him to move his wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) and two sons to a modest ranch in Arizona. However, hopes for a new beginning fade amidst the harsh conditions and rampant corruption. An ongoing drought renders Dan’s land barren and decimates his herd, driving him deeper into debt and his family into near starvation.

The ranch’s deed-holder, recognizing an opportunity in the coming railroad, attempts to drive the Evans off their property. Time is running out, but Dan continues to stoically work his land, hoping for his luck to change. An inner-directed man (to use sociologist David Riesman’s classification), Dan refuses to change his code of ethics.

The dreary economic conditions and few prospects for the future exert negative effect on his family and on his self-perception as “real man.” Dan is aware of losing the respect of his eldest son Will (Logan Lerman), who thrills to the adventures of the bandits he reads about in dime novels. Will views his father with contempt, and even mom Alice begins to doubt her hubby’s firm resolve, seeing it more of a stubbornness.

The capture of notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe), whose violent hold-ups and roguish persona are legendary offer an opportunity for change. A strategist and natural-born leader, Wade commands loyalty from his band of thugs, particularly the ruthless Charlie Prince (Ben Foster). Wade and his baddies have run roughshod over the Southern Pacific Railroad, making off with lots of money and the killing of several men during dozen robberies. Arresting Wade is first and easiest step in bringing him to justice. In a situation similar to that of “Rio Bravo,” from the moment he is taken into custody in Bisbee, those guarding him are vulnerable to attack from his gang.

Mangold then introduces a gallery of secondary characters. Southern Pacific Railroad representative Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) seeks paid volunteers to join a posse that would take Wade to Contention in a three-day journey. One in Contention, Wade would be loaded onto a train with a prison car bound for Yuma.

Desperate to save his ranch and his family, Dan accepts the $200 fee and joins the group that will deliver Wade onto the 3: 10 train to the Yuma prison. Leading the expedition is vet bounty hunter Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), a mercenary driven by hatred of Wade, joined by Tucker (Kevin Durand), a local thug, and Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk), a gentle veterinarian who has never tasted violence.

Perfectly cast as the (anti) hero, Crowe shows that even when he shackled, he’s still a threat and real badass. Beneath the charm and attractive faade, there is a perceptive survivor who knows how to manipulate and exploit human weaknesses to his advantage. A man of action, when Wade sees an opportunity to escape or retaliate, he grabs it. But manipulative schemes work up to a point: When Wade offers Dan more money and set him free (he’s hand-cuffed for most of the yarn), the rancher declines, still holding onto his decency.

Film’s mid-section depicts the perilous journey to Contention, where posse of good men will face bad ones. As the conflict becomes more intense, Dan rediscovers reserves of strengths he thought had been lost. Following generic conventions, Dan becomes committed to execute justice, fighting to complete the missionat all costs. The clock is ticking down, as it did effectively in “High Noon,” with all parties waiting for the arrival of the train.

Gradually, there’s growing camaraderie between the two initial enemies. With time in their hands, and locked in a room waiting for the train, the thespians rise to the occasion and begin to share episodes and secrets from their past and even make unexpected confessions. The dialogue is so crisp (often poignant and even touching), the mise-en-scene (with plenty of close-ups in intimate scenes, both exterior and interior) so precise, and the acing so accomplished, that we are immersed in witnessing two men from opposite ends of the moral spectrum, learn from one another and find unexpected kinship.

Surprisingly, Mangold doesn’t magnify the train’s whistle as it approaches Contention. The last act deviates from the original but can’t be disclosed. Suffice is to say that Dan’s last attempt to save his ranch turns into a deeper, more profound crisis. Risking his life in order to redeem himself, he regains self-respect, teaching in the process his son Will the true meaning of honor, justice, and manhood.

As director, Mangold’s achievement is his mixture of a good, classic Western saga with some modernist touches. There’s no doubt that the lingo, dark humor, and cynicism, not to speak of visual style that defines this”3:10 to Yuma,” are all reflection of our zeitgeist.

After failing to impress in Ridley Scott’s romantic comedy, the soft and trivial “A Good Year,” Crow is back in top form, excelling in words and action; if memory serves, Crowe’s previous horse opera was “The Quick and the Dead,” a bad picture. Cashing in on his wry charm and macho bravado, Crowe navigates smoothly between the rougher and more sensitive dimensions of his detailed part. Ultimately, the scenario favors him with snappy lines, though it’s always easier to play the “good-heavy” than the good-good guy, burdened with morality and earnest speeches about family and honor.

The gifted Christian Bale again proves that he is versatile and blessed with a range that allows him to do any role (even psychopathic killers as in “American Psycho”) in any genre, be they period drams, comic-strip sagas (“Batman Begins”), adventures (most recently in Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn”) and now Westerns.

As scripted and performed, Crowe and Bale represents two sides of manhood, suggesting that the ideal man is one that combines the best traits of each. This is not a new idea: The screen persona of such Western mega-stars as Alan Ladd (“Shane”), Gary Copper, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Clint Eastwood (in his later phase) have always cashed in on such duality.

Cast

Ben Wade – Russell Crowe
Dan Evans – Christian Bale
Byron McElroy – Peter Fonda
Alice Evans – Gretchen Mol
Charlie Prince – Ben Foster
Grayson Butterfield – Dallas Roberts
Doc Potter – Alan Tudyk
Emmy Roberts – Vinessa Shaw
Will Evans – Logan Lerman
Tucker – Kevin Durand
Marshal Weathers – Luce Rains
Tommy Darden – Johnny Whitworth
Mark Evans – Benjamin Petry

Credits

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 119 Minutes.

A Lionsgate release, presented in association with Relativity Media of a Tree Line Films production.
Produced by Cathy Konrad.
Executive producers Stuart M. Besser, Ryan Kavanaugh, Lynwood Spinks.
Directed by James Mangold.
Screenplay, Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, based on the short story by Elmore Leonard.
Camera: Phedon Papamichael.
Editor, Michael McCusker.
Music, Marco Beltrami.
Production designer: Andrew Menzies.
Art director: Greg Berry
Set design: Roger Lundeen and Rich Roming; set decorator, Jay R. Hart.
Costume design: Arianne Phillips.
Sound: Jim Stuebe
Second unit director/stunt cordinator: Freddie Hice.